6.805 | Fall 2005 | Undergraduate

Ethics and the Law on the Electronic Frontier


This section provides an overview of the assignments for each week, including readings to be completed before the lecture sessions.

Assignment 1 Pre-Semester Writing Assignment
Assignment 2 The Internet meets the U.S. Constitution
Assignment 3 Filters
Assignment 4 Fourth Amendment Foundations and the First Century of Electronic Surveillance
Assignment 5 International Issues
Assignment 6 Cryptography
Assignment 7 Profiling and Data Mining
Assignment 8 Transparency
Assignment 9 Personal Information on the Web
Assignment 10 Transparency in Consumer Protection and Commercial Regulation
Assignment 11 How Metaphor becomes Law: The Origins of Broadcast Regulation

Weekly Writing Rotisserie (PDF)

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

Pre-Semester Writing Assignment


Before 5 PM on the day before Lec #1. No one will be admitted to the class without having done the assignment.


Read the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals in the case: Mainstream Marketing Services vs. Federal Trade Commission (10th Cir, 2004).

Pretend you are a reporter for a major newspaper. Write a short (two- or three-paragraph) news story (not a brief) that covers the Court’s ruling. Your story should be accessible to ordinary readers of the newspaper. It should explain what the issue was, how the Court ruled, and the Court’s reason for ruling that way, and why the public should care.

See how well you can write in good journalistic style. Use the tips on how to write a good news article in the study materials section.

We will be having your papers critiqued by a reporter from The Wall Street Journal.

Send your news story by email to 6.805 staff.

Before Class

Do the reading and the search exercises described in the sample case brief (PDF).

After Class

Register for the writing rotisserie after class. Remember that the weekly readings are to be done before lecture. Check out next week’s reading assignments a couple of days before class.

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

Transparency in Consumer Protection and Commercial Regulation

Before Class

Find the answers to the following questions:

  1. How can you request your credit report?
  2. Under what legal authority can you request your credit report?
  3. How can you correct errors in your credit report?
  4. What recourse do you have if the errors are not corrected?

Papers: The next milestone for your paper is due on Thursday, on the rotisserie. See information on papers for details.

Moot Court Video : As announced in class, we will be showing a video of a moot court on the constitutionality of mandated encryption key escrow. This will run from around 4:30 until around 7:00. Attendance after 5 is optional. In order to prepare for this please read:

  • The Cryptography Control Act of 1995. This is a fictional statute, whose constitutionality is being argued before the Court. (PDF)
  • Skim the appeals court decision (majority opinion, concurring opinion, and dissent) that is being appealed in this hearing.

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

How Metaphor becomes Law: The Origins of Broadcast Regulation

There is no assignment for this class. You should be working on your papers. Remember that a complete draft of the paper is due 4 days after Lec #11. See information on papers.

Today, Hal will talk about the origins of broadcast regulation as an example of how new technology first becomes understood though metaphors; and while the metaphors may be technically unsound, they can often form the basis for law and regulation of that technology.

For the second part of the class, we’ll ask a few of you to give brief oral summaries of your paper and progress in writing. You needn’t prepare anything for this presentation (other than to be making good progress on your paper).

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

The Internet meets the U.S. Constitution

Today’s class will deal with the background for regulation of the Internet, as it relates to Constitutional law, particularly First Amendment jurisprudence relating to freedom of speech. We’ll compare the legal basis for Internet regulation with that of other media, particularly broadcast radio, and then focus on the Communications Decency Act and the landmark Supreme Court decision in Reno vs. ACLU.

Before Class

You should do the following reading before class, and be prepared to discuss it:

  • Read the Supreme Court decision in FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978). You should be able to easily find lots of summaries on the Internet, as well as the opinion itself, for example, from Lexis or at sites such as findlaw. (pick “search cases and codes”). Make sure to read the actual opinion, not just the summaries.
    In this case, the Court upheld the power of the FCC to regulate indecent (as opposed to obscene) speech in broadcast media, thereby codifying into law the principle that material broadcast over radio or TV has narrower Constitutional protections than material written in books or newspapers. The rationale for this rests on the “pervasive presence” of the medium – that it is difficult to avoid unintentionally running across objectionable broadcasts even in the privacy of one’s own home – and that the medium is “uniquely accessible to children.” The question of whether material transmitted via the Internet is more like broadcasts or like books was central to the arguments over the constitutionality of the CDA.
  • Read the following short summary of the Supreme Court ruling in Sable Communications of California, Inc.vs. FCC, 492 U.S. 115 (1989). In this case, Court ruled here that a 1983 law banning dial-a-porn services was unconstitutional, on the grounds that it was overly broad. The opinion by Justice White lays out the famous “least restrictive means” test.
  • Read the Supreme Court’s decision in Reno vs. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997). This week’s rotisserie assignment (published on Friday) will ask you to brief the case. You can find some helpful background on Reno and the Communications Decency Act by looking again at the link Computer Communications and Freedom of Expression in the readings section.

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11


Last week, we talked about the government’s attempts to regulate indecent content at the source, by enacting the Communications Decency Act of 1996. We learned that Congress does not have the power to ban this material outright, or even to make it generally illegal to provide to minors over the Internet. But can the government provide only “filtered” access to the Internet? Can the government use its spending power to ensure that minors’ access will be filtered?

We will have a “moot court” in class on Thursday, tied in to the rotisserie assignment.

Before Class

Preparation for Rotisserie Assignment

In the period after Reno vs. ACLU was decided, governments struggled to balance the First Amendment rights of speakers against their desire to protect minors from pornography. One of the ways they tried to regulate was through the use of filters – one of the less-restrictive means suggested by the Reno court.

  • Read the Supreme Court’s decision in United States vs. American Library Ass’n, 539 U.S. 194 (2003). Here, the ALA challenged a federal law that withheld funding from libraries that did not filter their Internet access.
  • Skim the Supreme Court’s decision in United States vs. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803 (2000).
  • Read the Supreme Court’s decision in Ashcroft vs. ACLU, 542 U.S. 656 (2004).
  • How to find the Cases: Use MIT’s access to Lexis-Nexis Universe. On the front page, there is a box titled “Citation”. Enter “539 U.S. 194” (for American Library Ass’n), “529 U.S. 803” (for Playboy Entertainment), or “542 U.S. 656” (for Ashcroft vs. ACLU).

This is how attorneys refer precisely to particular decisions. You will see these citations scattered about all kinds of legal writing. Be adventerous! If a previous case looks interesting, put its citation into Lexis and read what you get back.

Note: Lexis includes little snippets of the case, known as the “headnotes,” at the top of each listing. It’s okay to skip these until you get to the “syllabus” or the majority opinion. But they can also be a useful guide to what the Lexis editors think are the most important parts of the decision.

Be sure to do the rotisserie assignment, due 2 days before the next lecture. You will be assigned to teams in the “moot court” at the lecture session based on the content of your brief.

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

Fourth Amendment Foundations and the First Century of Electronic Surveillance

With this class, we shift gears, moving from the First Amendment implications of regulating indecent speech to the Fourth Amendment and privacy implications of electronic surveillance and searches.

Before Class


  • Semayne’s Case, an old English case from 1604.
  • Olmstead vs. United States, 277 U.S. 438 (1928).
  • Katz vs. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967).
  • Terry vs. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968).

How to find the Cases: Use MIT’s access to Lexis-Nexis Universe. Type the middle part of the citation (“277 U.S. 438”, “389 U.S. 347”, or “392 U.S. 1”) into the “citation” field on Lexis’s search form.

If you are off-campus, the above link might not work to get you access to Lexis-Nexis Universe. Instead, follow the directions on “Locating Judicial Opinions”, as explained in the the sample case brief in the study materials section. Alternately, you can access Lexis-Nexis from anywhere if you have an MIT certificate, by using the MIT Libraries proxy service.

There is no writing rotisserie assignment this week. Instead, we want you to request the records held about you by four entities.

  1. The federal government has a law called the Privacy Act, which says, with some exceptions, that you have the right to retrieve the records any federal agency holds that are about you. We’d like you to request the records held on you (if any) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Follow the FBI’s Privacy Act request instructions (PDF) and fill out the Privacy Act Request Form (PDF). Put it in an envelope addressed to the FBI (at the address given), and bring the sealed envelope to class. We’ll mail it for you.
  2. Do the same for the National Security Agency’s “Operations Files.” Read the National Security Agency’s instructions, and write up a request for information held in the “Operations Files” about you. Put it in a sealed envelope addressed to:
    Office of Policy
    National Security Agency/Central Security Service
    Ft. George G. Meade, MD 20755-6000
    Bring the addressed, sealed envelope to class on Thursday, and we’ll mail it for you.
  3. MIT has a Student Information Policy that guarantees you access to your records. Make a request to the MIT Admissions Office to see your admissions record (known as your “E3 card”), including the scores you received from the MIT evaluators when you applied for admission. Bring a copy of your request to class on Thursday.
  4. The MIT Card Office has its own Privacy Policy, which describes the data retention procedures for the Office’s database of the times you have swiped your card. Make a request to the MIT Card Office under the Student Information Policy for the list of doors you have entered in the last two weeks. Bring a copy of your request to class on Thursday.

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

International Issues

This week, Mike Fischer will talk about life on a different part of the electronic frontier.

Before Class

Read these papers:

  • Orkideh Behrouzan, Persian Blogs against “The Dual Language”
  • Alireza Doostdar, The Vulgar Spirit of Blogging
  • Hossein Derakhshan, Censor This: Iran’s Web of Lies
  • Steven Cherry, China: The Net Effect
  • Rosemary J. Coombe and Andrew Herman, Rhetorical Virtues: Property, Speech, and the Commons on the World-Wide Web
  • “Moral rights” (Caslon Analytics: Intellectual Property Guide)
  • Anita Chan, Coding Free Software, Coding Free States

Also skim these papers:

  • Chris Kelty, Culture’s Open Sources: Punt to Culture
  • Internet Filtering in Iran 2004-2005 (PDF ‑ 1.0 MB)
  • Reporters Without Borders, The Internet Under Surveillance: China

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11


This week’s class will be about encryption. Hal will give a review/survey of encryption technology, and then we’ll discuss government attempts to regulate encryption through the 90s, together with recent developments relating to concerns about voice over IP.

Before Class

You should do the following reading before class, and be prepared to discuss it:

  • John Perry Barlow, Jackboots on the Infobahn, Wired, 1994. This is an early article in the Clipper debate.
  • Stewart Baker, Don’t Worry Be Happy: Why Clipper Is Good For You, Wired, May 1994, This piece by the then chief counsel of the NSA, was an early salvo in the crypto wars. Looking back from the perspective of today, what do you think of the arguments presented by Barlow and Baker?
  • Whit Diffie, Washington’s Computer Insecurity, New York Times op-ed, August 1995. As you read this, think about what’s happened since 1995, and whether Whit’s arguments ring true today.
  • Hal Abelson, Ross Anderson, Steven Bellovin, Josh Benaloh, Matt Blaze, Whitfield Diffie, John Gilmore, Peter Neumann, Ronald Rivest, Jeffrey Schiller, and Bruce Schneier, The Risks of Key Recovery, Key Escrow, and Trusted Third-Party Encryption (PDF), May 1997. Read carefully at least through the preface, executive summary, and group charter, and skim the rest.
  • Senator Backs Off Backdoors, Wired News, October 17, 2001.
  • FCC requires some broadband and VoIP Providers to accommodate wiretaps, VOIP Blog, September 26, 2005.

Extra (Optional)

If you haven’t used voice over IP, you should. Download Skype and and play with it. You should do this with a partner, so you’ll have someone to talk to.


The midterm is after Lec #7.

Note: Starting next week, we’ll begin assigning readings from the two books we asked you to get for the class:

  • Brin, David. The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? New York, NY: Perseus Books, 1999. ISBN: 0738201448.
  • O’Harrow, Robert. No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005. ISBN: 0743254805.

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

Profiling and Data Mining

Before Class

Please read:

  • The first three chapters of Robert O’Harrow’s book No Place to Hide, which we asked you to get hold of at the beginning of the semester.
  • The case of City of Indianapolis vs. Edmond, 531 U.S. 32 (2000).
  • The Wikipedia entry on the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272.
  • This analysis of the key provisions of the Patriot Act. (PDF)
  • These documents on airline security:
    • CAPPS II System of Records notice: Document filed by the Transportation Security Authority in compliance with the Privacy Act of 1974, which explains the system of records they intended to create to facilitate the CAPPS II system. Pay careful attention to the nature of information being stored, and the (admittedly vague) picture of what they intended to do with it.
    • Secure Flight Test Records System of Records notice: The same sort of document, filed to explain the system of records being created as part of the testing phase for the CAPPS II replacement program Secure Flight. Here, pay attention to what’s different (other than the fact that this notice is for a testing phase of the program in question) from CAPPS II, and what hasn’t changed at all. (PDF)
    • Amended Secure Flight Test System of Records notice: In June of this year, the Transportation Security Authority revised its “testing phase” privacy act notice to reflect what it had actually done. (PDF)

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11


Before Class

Please read:

  • The first four chapters of David Brin’s book The Transparent Society, which we asked you to get hold of at the beginning of the semester.

The rotisserie assignment is to submit a 1-page description of the topic you plan to investigate in your paper. For details, see the Guidelines and Expectations for Final Papers in the projects section.

Assignments: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

Personal Information on the Web

To browse in class: Privacy Lecture Sites (PDF)

Before Class

Please read:

  • Chapters 4 through 6 of Robert O’Harrow’s book No Place to Hide, which we asked you to get hold of at the beginning of the semester.
  • Find a news article that appeared during past year that involves the issue of personal information on the Web, and be prepared to talk about this in class.

There is no rotisserie writing assignment for this week. Instead, you should be spending time working on your paper: doing research and trying to formulate a thesis. For Lec #10, you’ll need to turn in a thesis and an outline of your arguments. See information on papers for details. Don’t underestimate how difficult it will be to come up with a good thesis, and start doing the research now.

Moot court video : If enough people are interested, we can arrange to show a video of a moot court on the question of whether it would be constitutional to require all encrytion systems to escrow keys with the government. This would take place on Lec #10, from 6 until 8:30. We’ll ask for a show of hands in class on Lec #9 to see who would come.